Undercover Blogger!

exhausted-woman with head down at desk
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
—King Lear

I am an undercover blogger. It doesn’t sound very nice, does it?

But something is happening to writing, isn’t it? We see it in books; we see it online.   And I want to get to the bottom of it (says she who has been reading hard-boiled detective fiction).

Online writing is quick and dirty.  You don’t want to read too much of it.  Content trumps style, just as Twitter trumps Trump. Bloggers are earnest and often intelligent, but they lack polish.  Perhaps we can do better, perhaps not.  The problem is…reading bad writing online affects  your style, logic, and critical judgment.

Two online book-ish (and I do mean “-ish”) tabloids, Book Riot and Flavorwire, have pinched the worst features of blogs. These corporate vandals (or are they corporate?) have co-opted, rioted, wired and mimicked the hit-and-run triteness of the least-researched and most vacuous social media.  Even one of their teeny-tiny articles will make you feel stupid for a day, because you were stupid even to go there.

I am forever looking for new blogs, because better blogs will inspire us to do better, surely?  Many of the best old-time bloggers have become stale, opted out, or begun to write about new subjects. The blog is, after all, a very old medium now. You never know:  I might close this blog and start over again.  There was no real reason to shut down my old blog, but I did on a whim.   I gained new readers, and I have more “subscribers” here, though I barely know what that means.  Does it matter?

But my internet problems are nothing.  What bothers me  is the influence of social media on newspapers, magazines, and books.  I don’t mean it’s all bad. Sometimes it’s for better, sometimes for worse.

A cult classic

A cult classic

FOR THE (VERY) GOOD: Natasha Stagg’s brilliant debut novel, Surveys, is, or should be, a cult classic.  The underemployed heroine works for a marketing company that conducts surveys at the mall after being rejected from Victoria’s Secret,  Hot Topic, Charlotte Russe, Sweet Factory, The Gap, Banana Republic, Guess, Express, The Limited, J. Crew, and The United Colors of Benneton.  At night she  entertains herself with drinking, drugs, and the internet.  And when social media become more real than her life and she meets a “semi-famous” person online, they meet and become a couple, and then travel the world hosting parties sponsored by corporations.   It is an empty life, but Stagg makes it real.

FOR THE GOOD (MOSTLY):  I had low expectations of Maria Semple’s comic novel, Today Will Be Different.  Semple’s first novel, Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, was mostly a collection of e-mails, and who wants to read e-mail offline?  But Today Will Be Different  is brilliant and witty.   The heroine, a Seattle housewife, is alternately grumpy and effervescent.  She neglects her husband and son and can’t concentrate on writing her graphic memoir. So from e-mail to a graphic novel?  Part of the novel is a graphic novel–and it’s great!

FOR THE BAD:  Samantha Ellis’s bibliomemoir, Take Courage: Anne Bronte and the Art of Life, reflects the influence of blogs, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and other social media. Margaret Drabble in the TLS called it “a selfie memoir,” but kindly overlooked the naiveté of Ellis’s criticism.  I was very disappointed: it reads like the musings of a blogger.  But why should I care if this book is good or bad? It will be a popular book. The Brontes are popular.  It harms no one.  But beware, Bronte scholars.  You won’t be pleased.  And, that said, if you want my copy, send me an e-mail at mirabiledictu.org@gmail.com

FOR WORSE:  Feature stories instead of news on the first page of failing newspapers in the Midwest, shorter articles in intellectual magazines (The New Yorker, The Atlantic, et al) and shorter reviews in prestigious book review pages and journals.

Bad times are ahead: it will be harder to get a good education, and online sources won’t help.  Someone is trying to pass a bill requiring universities to hire equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats.  Oh God…as if this ever came up in any classes except political science.

Meanwhile, I keep blogging.  I could do better. But…

Blathering: The Future of Social Media

Abbott and Costello meet Leo Tolstoy.

Abbott and Costello meet Leo Tolstoy.

This year I’ve been re-evaluating my use of social media. In the last year, I have lost interest in the internet. Power to the people—but the people are not always knowledgeable.  Absurdities are tweeted,  marketers mine Facebook and other platforms, and ads pop up everywhere.  For what it’s worth, I can read international newspapers and journals online. For what it’s worth…will it be worth it in the end?

The internet started as a way of building community, or so they say.  But a lot of good it has done it:  it  has destroyed public libraries. Many people plugged into the net have problems evaluating sources:  Wikipedia and even sketchy results of Google searches have taken the place of  scholarly books, reference books,  journals, etc..  In England, hundreds of libraries have closed, as fewer people use them.  In the U.S., the use of libraries has also declined. According to a recent Pew research study , only 44 percent of Americans visited a library or bookmobile over the last 12 months. Three years ago that figure was 53 percent.  On the rare occasions when I visit university libraries, I do not see  students reading books. All are glued to their computers. Shouldn’t university students be expected to read books?

Social media give everyone a voice. But books are not, as far as I can see, improving as a result of publishers’ mining data from consumer reviews. If anything, worse.  And many journalists, critics, and writers–and who can blame them, since the internet has destroyed their work?– are bitter about social media. In Howard Jacobson’s savage satire, Zoo Time,  the hero, Guy, a novelist, is furious that  his books are out of print.  His publisher is depressed because he is expected to ask Guy to “twit” and “blag.” (Tweet and blog.)  But Guy wants to tell him that”the blog is yesterday,” and that the blame lies on “myBlank and shitFace and whatever else was persuading the unRead to believe everybody had a right to his opinion.”

Well, Jacobson is very harsh,  though I know what he means about the unRead, and doubtless he considers me one. I can hardly say much against blogs, since I have one. Generally, the blog is a “no-harm” medium.  It can be used as a diary, an op/ed page, a collection of thoughts, even as a site for polished essay. (The latter is rare.) But I want to assert that mine is a book journal with informal notes about books:  I am not writing reviews. Very few bloggers are writing reviews. The problem is that the average blogger does believe he or she is writing  reviews.  And now that marketers have colonized blogs–I   turned down a review copy yesterday, of an e-book, not even a real book! –the “review” factor is even shakier than it used to be.

In general, bloggers read short books and earnestly, or whimsically, as the case may be, tell you their opinion of the book.  I find blogs very skimmable, but in recent years have read fewer. Every few weeks I read the bloggers who comment on my blogs, and then I leave comments, because it’s an obligation. But I am still as unconnected to other bloggers as Hillary Clinton was to the electorate.  Deep down, I know  that most of this internet writing is a waste of time, and that Bernie should have been the Democratic candidate.

Some bloggers love to read, but have no background in literature and are completely baffled by classics .  If you don’t often read blogs, you may be surprised, as my husband was the other night, to find a blogger declaring  Herman Mellville’s short novel Billy Budd “worthless”  and giving it a  D-. Yup, some bloggers actually grade books or work on the movie review star stystem.  The thing I’ve noticed is, when bloggers read classics, they often pick a short book,  presumably so they can tick it off a list–they’ve done Melville–without dong any real work.

My husband was so fascinated by this nervy blogger that he and I decided to write short fake  reviewettes by an imaginary cranky blogger.   Here they are.


Melville’s Billy Budd.  86 pages. ZERO STARS. “Could have 1 star if he cut out all the stuff about sailing. It’s crap! Don’t read Moby Dick.  I bet it’s crap!  Where’s Gordon Lish?”

Henrry James’s The Turn of the Screw.  121 pages.  1 star.  “James can’t write. Boy, was this a waste of time.  Crap!”

Colette’s Gigi.   68 pages.   1 star.  “God, what crap. I don’t care about the characters. Read at a blog that C was an immoral lesy.”

Doris Lessing’s The Grass Is Singing.  208 pages.  ZERO STARS.  “The worst book I’ve ever read.  Everybody pretends they  read The Golden Notebook but they don’t. Jenny Diski hated Lessing, and SHE wrote short books. so knows.  A bitch online said Doris Lessing satirizes TGIS in The Golden Notebook but  she’s so full of crap. I hate feminists.I voted for Trump. I will never read another book by a woman.”

Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.  838 pages.  ZERO STARS.   “I didn’t like Oblonsky, Levin, Dolly, Kitty, Anna, Karenin, Vronsky, Nikolai Dmitrievich, or Princess Betsy.  Pevear and Volokhonsky are bad translators.”

Okay, you get the idea?

I’m going to look back at all the hours I’ve spent online–and wonder.

Are There Words with That? and Turning off the Like Button

Unlikely though it might seem, I have become an aficionado of the Book in a Box.

It started this spring when I bought a used copy of the 1975 Folio Society edition of Rosemary Edmonds’s translation of War and Peace.

David Bellos Is That a Fish in Your Ear 11431000I became interested in Edmonds during my reading of David Bellos’s stunning book, Is That a Fish in Your Ear?:  Translation and the Meaning of Everything.  He quotes a passage from Edmonds’s translation of War and Peace to illustrate how Tolstoy links “the force of an utterance…to the identity of the speaker”…

The excerpt was so direct and simple that I wondered if Edmonds might be the bridge between the “Victorian-novel” elegance of Aylmer and Louise Maude  and the roughness of  Pevear and Volokhonsky.  And so I ordered the 1997 Folio Society reprint of Edmonds’s translation, which she originally did for Penguin.

Frontispiece of the Folio Society edition, 1997 reprint. Edmonds translation

Frontispiece of the Folio Society edition, 1997 reprint, Edmonds translation

My experience with classics has taught me that English translations rarely capture the unique style and structure of foreign languages:  the English translations of Catullus, the most sinuous, sensuous of poets who sometimes translated Sappho,  are very stilted , with the exception of David Ferry, who reworks the poems so that they are far from  literal translations.  We are completely dependent on the translator if we do not know the language. I certainly do not know Russian.  The elegant Maude translation has been imprinted on my brain, but Edmonds’s smartness and lucidity are equally striking.

Right now I am reading Edmonds’ translation of  Anna Karenina.  I bought yet another beautiful book in a box–the 1975 Folio Scoiety edition–which has illustrations by Dodie Masterman.

My husband wants to know, “Are there words with that?”

I think the illustrations add something to the text.:)


I disapprove of social media.

It is lazy.  It is dull.

It is panem et circenses 

Facebook  is an advertising and surveillance network, Twitter (ditto),  Goodreads (ditto), Shelfari (ditto), etc.

And here at WordPress I practice the craft of blogging, i.e., posting diary entries on the internet instead of in the pages of my orange leatherette  diary (from Target, the fun, stylish box store).  My blog is very fast–draft and post in a few hours–unlike the crisp writing I did for money at my old job.  It is social media!

There is a superabundance of social media on the internet.  Very little of it has value.  But I understand it will last forever, like atomic waste.

In 2012 several male critics  attacked  blogs and social media. It was  male networking at its finest.  Editors, critics, computer guys–you name it, they were gathering at their clubs. I expected them to read Robert Bly and go camping in the woods and howl.  They complained that social media were destroying book and film criticism.  Social media are too “nice,” or was it “too mean?”  I thought they sounded like a ridiculously whiny out-of-date Greek chorus.  The internet has ruined not just criticism–it has ruined everything!  Don’t they get it?  Are they not on this planet?  No more letters, no more bookstores, no more music stores, live-streaming of this and that (and I just got used to my DVD player and CD player and I don’t think my 15-year-old TV is capable of live-streaming), no more writing (try not to say more than a sentence or two and use a lot of emoticons and abbreviations like u for you), no more newspapers (they’re dying), no more post office (it is cutting back hours), no more pay phones, no more ozone layer (well, I can’t blame that on the internet).   They’re just hoping the damned cloud with our information will stay up because we’re going to spend a lot of time indoors.

Oh, and just so you know:  I turned off the like button.  Likes were starting to make sense:  that’s why I had to pull the plug.  Because a like button is the la-a-a-a-a-z-z-z-z-iest communication on earth

Social Media at the Dieting Forum: No Comment!

We're big on the "f" word at Mirabile Dictu.

Does Mirablie Dictu “f—” around too much online & write too little?

I should prepare a balanced meal for my skinny husband, the only one in the family who lost weight on my diet last winter, but instead I waste time at an online dieting forum.

Me:  F—, f—, f—.  I ate a cupcake at B&N and gained 5 pounds.

Diet Pal:  That’s 480 calories.  I ate twice that for breakfast.

Me:  Did you lose weight?

DP:  Lost one  in Dec. and gained  5 back.

Me:  I lost 5 pounds in London and regained them the minute the plane landed in the U.S.A.

DP: Good eating there?

Me:  Maybe less additives in the croissants?

Obviously this is the “free” dieting forum.  If we were paying, we would diet, not eat cupcakes.

It’s easy to waste time on social media.

I don’t have a Facebook page.

But I had a Twitter account for six months last year.  I hopped from links in tweets to book reviews and even articles about non-bookish things that didn’t interest me.  A literary magazine tweeted about several authors I’d never heard of, and I’ve still never heard of them.

Twitter can be addictive.

Seriously, it cut into my reading time.

Finally I deleted my account.

And I started to feel better.

I love being online, but am cutting back again on social media.  I am turning off my comments at the blog, perhaps just for a few months.  We’ll see.

It’s complicated.

I’ve just decided it’s hard to conduct a discussion in a format that isn’t a forum.

I’ve got my dieting forum.

And then there’s the Dancing with the Stars forum.  It’s more fun than Dancing with the Stars. 

The brief “highs” from likes at Facebook, or, in my case, positive comments at my blog, illumine the reward center of  the brain and can lead to addiction to social media, according to  study by Dar Meshi, a postdoctoral researcher at the Freie Universität in Berlin.

Is that why we’re spending so much time online?

According to Jonathan Salem Baskin in his article, “Social Media Are Junk Food for Our Brains.  Why Are the Nutritionists Silent?”  in Forbes last year, many people are going on a social media diet.  He points out,

… much of today’s social media experiences amount to little more than tasty bags of mental potato chips. There’s a powerful and mostly-unquestioned lobby that tells us to have another one, and then another one, so institutions and brands happily up their chip production and then wonder why consumers aren’t happy with what they get.

I’ve got to get back to the garden, literally, and you can spend so much time leaving silly comments on the internet that you don’t have time to plant the flowers…

Or something like that…

Anyway, if you need to write to me, I am at:  mirabiledictu.org@gmail.com